SALT LAKE CITY — They came with masks on their faces, proof of negative COVID-19 tests in their pockets and safety on their minds as Utah’s state senators and representatives opened the 2021 Legislature this week in a well-guarded Capitol on heightened alert for protesters.

For the first week of the session, the Capitol was off-limits to the general public due to security concerns in light of the deadly riot at the U.S. Capitol by right-wing extremists protesting presidential election results. Calls for protests at state capitols leading up to Inauguration Day on Wednesday prompted Utah Gov. Spencer Cox to declare an emergency, close the complex to visitors and have National Guard troops help Utah Highway Patrol troopers protect the grounds.

But no major demonstrations materialized in Salt Lake City, and Utah lawmakers went about their business with optimism and a sense of purpose to get beyond the COVID-19 crisis still plaguing the state and country.

“Beyond the physical effects of COVID, the global pandemic has caused widespread economic hardship, social disruption and mental health issues. Discouraging news about the pandemic, natural disasters and civil unrest have seemed to arrive at a tempo that left moments of reprieve few and far between,” House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, said in his opening day speech on the House floor Tuesday. 

“But in the midst of all this tragedy, we have seen Utahns facing adversity with determination, overcoming challenges with innovation, and lifting others with compassion,” Wilson said.

Lawmakers are working under COVID-19 restrictions that include a mask requirement, a handshake ban and required weekly testing for the novel coronavirus. Nevertheless, at least three people — none of them lawmakers — tested positive for the virus, it was learned Friday.

On Thursday night, Cox gave his first State of the State address in the House chamber, cautioning senators and representatives to be wary of “foundational cracks” that threaten the state.

Cox talked of the state’s “unprecedented” growth rate, and all the challenges that have come with it, calling air quality, transportation, water, housing “all the types of foundational cracks that could derail our success and the opportunities for future generations.”

Cox said he’s concerned that a “high-quality education” is not happening in “every corner of our state,” calling again for legislators to tackle “tough choices” around equalizing education funding so taxpayers and students receive quality education regardless of their ZIP codes.

He said it’s “the key to unlocking intergenerational poverty. It’s the key to disrupting the criminal justice pipeline. It’s the key to unlocking the American dream. And it’s the right thing to do.”

The last “foundational crack” that Cox addressed was “that of contempt, tribalism and discord that has rocked our nation over the past few weeks.”

He reminded lawmakers of the oath of office he and they have taken, “to uphold the Constitution of the United States,” and urged them to set examples of unity and strive for mutual respect and “civic charity” in public discourse.

In one of the first significant moves in the chambers, the Senate unanimously passed SB11, a bill that would use about $43 million out of the $80 million already set aside for tax cuts to reduce income taxes for Utahns on Social Security and military retirement.

Lawmakers have also talked about an across-the-board income tax cut and an increase in the state’s existing tax credit for dependents to reverse some harms from federal tax law changes in recent years.

Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said cutting taxes this year is a “top priority.”

“After a difficult year, we felt it important to get money back into the hands of Utahns,” Adams said in a statement.

If approved by the House and signed by Cox, SB11 will reduce tax burdens on nearly 67,000 Utahns on fixed incomes, including those who make $48,000 a year or less as a couple or $24,000 or less as an individual on Social Security income. It would reduce their burden by an average of $298 a year in a Social Security credit. It would also provide a tax credit for nearly 18,100 veterans on military pensions, a tax cut of about $1,315 on average.

A variety of other issues also reached headlines in the opening days, including:

Effort begins to ensure dead voters don’t haunt election rolls

A bill creating a process to ensure residents who die are quickly removed from voter registration rolls passed the House unanimously on Wednesday.

“Typically, deceased individuals do not receive a ballot in the mail, but I have heard of several cases where it has happened,” HB12 sponsor Rep. Mike Winder, R-West Valley City, said.

HB12 would require that once a death certificate is issued, notification to county clerks must be done within five business days. Once the clerk receives that death certificate, they have one day to remove the dead person’s name and information from the voter rolls.

Move to have medical examiner review killings by police advances

Amid dozens of reform bills concerning law enforcement officers’ use of force, the first bill on the topic to see legislative action would require the chief medical examiner to investigate deaths resulting directly from actions of a law enforcement officer.

HB22 unanimously passed the House Tuesday.

The bill also assigns a criminal charge for anyone who knowingly provides misinformation to the medical examiner or the medical examiner’s office. It specifies that anyone who certifies the cause of death other than the medical examiner or their designee will face a class B misdemeanor charges.

“We have an excellent qualified medical examiner. Our law enforcement, this bill is not aimed at them in any way, they behave very well. Our goal is to ensure public confidence,” said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Merrill Nelson, R-Grantsville.

New members of the Utah House of Representatives are sworn in as the Utah Legislature opens the 2021 legislative session at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Dropping permits for carrying concealed weapons moves forward

A Utah bill that would allow concealed carrying of firearms without a permit prompted debate Friday among some who believe it will promote individuals’ safety and others who fear it will prove deadly amid the mental health crisis. 

“This is not just a left issue or right issue,” bill sponsor Rep. Walt Brooks, R-St. George, said during a House Judiciary Committee meeting. “This is good data that drives good policy. ... The right to carry or protect yourself is a constitutional right.”

He said studies in some of the 16 states that allow concealed carrying of firearms without a permit have shown no increase in crime. Law-abiding citizens will still seek out gun training on their own should the bill pass, according to Brooks. 

HB60’s language mirrors legislation Brooks filed in the final days of the 2020 session, which would remove the state’s requirement for law-abiding Utahns over the age of 21 to have a permit to legally carry a concealed firearm.

Rep. Mark Wheatley, D-Murray, said he’s concerned that the bill could cause danger to people of color who choose to carry a concealed gun. 

“I’ve seen where individuals are pulled over or possibly stereotyped because they have a gun,” Wheatley said, adding that police officers might assume that some are “using it for the wrong reasons,” causing the gun owner to suffer consequences. 

Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, said he believes the number of guns in people’s possessions will likely rise if requirements decrease, leading to more accidental discharges and creating more risk for those going through mental health crises.  

Utah could get its own Space Force

HB57, sponsored by Rep. Jefferson Burton, R-Salem, would add “Space Force” to the definition of armed forces in Utah code, along with the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard.

The bill would enable Hill Air Force Base and the Utah National Guard to have opportunities to be a part of the United States Space Force, the space services branch of the U.S. armed forces created by former President Donald Trump.

Rep. Cory Maloy, R-Lehi, right, talks with Rep. Scott Chew, R-Jensen, as the Utah Legislature opens the 2021 general session at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Limits on opioid prescriptions after surgeries

After a recent tragedy, a Utah legislator wants to limit the supply of opioids a doctor can prescribe to a patient after surgery. Rep. Ray Ward, R-Bountiful, who works as a doctor, said he was on call for his practice when he was asked to sign a death certificate for a woman who had undergone surgery weeks earlier.

“There were three different prescribers who were providing three different sedative medications to her. All apparently were OK that someone else was prescribing them. And that particular night, that was just too many medicines and she stopped breathing,” Ward told members of the House Health and Human Services Committee on Thursday.

While in most cases doctors can only prescribe up to a seven-day supply of opiates if it’s the patient’s first prescription, there’s an exemption in Utah law that allows for a 30-day supply after surgeries. HB15 would remove that exemption and only allow doctors to prescribe a larger supply in complicated cases.

EMTs for mental health crises proposed

A lawmaker’s proposal to make Utah the first state to train emergency medical technicians specifically for responding to mental health emergencies received early support in a state Senate committee Wednesday. 

SB53 would allow EMTs and firefighters to be trained to respond to mental health calls. Then, agencies throughout the state could form teams made up of those trained EMTs, who would be dedicated specifically to mental health emergencies. 

Bill sponsor Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, said he believes Utah will be the first state to implement such a program. 

“I believe that this will absolutely change the way that we provide service to those experiencing substance use or mental health issues,” Thatcher told members of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee on Wednesday. 

Utah Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, left, hugs Dan Hemmert, director of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development.
Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, left, hugs Dan Hemmert, director of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, right, after Adams was sworn in during the first day of the 2021 general legislative session in the Senate chamber at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Funding threat for districts that don’t offer ‘broad-based in-person learning’

Republican Sen. Todd Weiler says he is “thrilled” the Salt Lake City Board of Education voted this week to resume in-person learning in its middle and high schools starting Feb. 8, but he is proceeding with SB107 that would require the State School Board to reallocate a portion of per-pupil funding from a school district that does not provide a broad-based in-person learning option for all students in kindergarten through grade 12 by Feb. 8.

It is more a measure to hold the school district to the commitment it made to reopen secondary schools starting next month, he said.

The Senate Education Committee voted 5-2 Wednesday to forward the bill to the full Senate, where Weiler said the bill may sit and wait as an insurance policy that the Salt Lake School District makes good on its promise to reopen classrooms.

Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Matthew B. Durrant gives the annual State of the Judiciary address via Zoom to members of the Utah House of Representatives on the first day of the Utah Legislature’s 2021 general session in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Chief justice says courts focused on resuming in-person trials

Supreme Court Chief Justice Matthew Durrant said Tuesday in the annual State of the Judiciary address to the Legislature that a goal for justice system is to return to in-person trials.

Despite a set of “daunting and difficult decisions” brought on by COVID-19, Durrant said, court staff and judges have “risen to the challenge and more.”

The court system moved almost completely online with virtual hearings and trials by mid-April as the disease spread across the state. Trials throughout 2020 involved over 400,000 virtual participants, Durrant said, enabling the judiciary to largely keep pace with its pre-pandemic case load. But some cases are taking longer to resolve, creating “a considerable backlog.”

The judicial system has been working with the University of Utah Health chief medical officer and chief epidemiologist to find ways to safely resume in-person jury trials, he said. 

New week will see the general public back in the Capitol

Utah’s Capitol will reopen to the public for in-person participation in the 2021 legislative session on Monday, lawmakers announced Friday evening.

Masks and 6-foot social distancing will still be required by everyone inside of the Capitol. Space in committee rooms will be limited. Even though in-person participation will be allowed, legislative leaders still encouraged Utahns to participate virtually.

Additionally, Utah Highway Patrol troopers will be stationed at each of the Capitol’s four public entrances to conduct bag checks. They’ll also stand guard at committee meetings to “protect the public, staff and elected officials,” a news release stated.  

Lawmakers are just beginning the nearly seven-week session that closes on March 5. Next week will see days full of committee meetings to begin vetting the hundreds of bills that will cross legislators’ desks.

As of Friday, at least 361 bills have been filed.

During their speeches, the leaders of the House and Senate highlighted a variety of legislative priorities for this session, including education funding, reviewing business regulations, infrastructure investment, mental health programs and the balance of power between the lawmaking and executive branches, particularly in times of emergencies such as the COVID-19 pandemic. 

No timetables have been set for when certain topics will be addressed.

Contributing: Katie McKellar, Ashley Imlay, Hannah Petersen, Marjorie Cortez, Mitch Wilkinson